Culture Is… Australian Stories Across Cultures – An Anthology
Edited by Anne-Marie Smith
The Multicultural Writers Association of Australia
Kent Town, South Australia: Wakefield Press, 2008
$24.95, 241 pages, ISBN 9781862548084
Reviewed by Ingeborg van Teeseling
University of Wollongong
Telling stories is a perilous undertaking in Australia. In a country where almost everybody is from somewhere else, especially personal tales are viewed with the utmost suspicion. According to official government directives, Australia is a multicultural nation. One big happy family, consisting of people with over 300 different backgrounds, but all living in perfect harmony. We even have a special day to mark this achievement, aptly named Harmony Day, where we "celebrate cultural diversity”, as the current Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Evans, recently stated. Unfortunately, it is indicative of Australian everyday life that such a day has to exist at all, and more so that it was initiated by a ministry that concerns itself with migrants.
Australia is a country that wrestles with its national identity. From the moment Captain James Cook sailed into Botany Bay and claimed the land as part of the British Empire, its new inhabitants struggled to make sense of where they were and what they were doing there. Not just the convicts resented their presence so far away from home, but even their wardens and many of the first free settlers wondered about their place in this harsh country. Writing back to their families, they often complained about the heat, the flies, the infertile soil and those pesky Aboriginal people, who seemed to think that this was their land and frequently fought to keep it that way. These first migrants questioned whether they would ever truly belong here, and if their feelings of displacement and homesickness were going to dissipate in time. They felt very much in-between countries and allegiances; not really part of the motherland anymore, but also not really embracing their new surroundings. Australia became what Jay Arthur called “the Default Country”, where “home” meant England and the country they lived in “an invisible negative shape”. The language they used to describe this place, and the stories they told in that language, was one of comparisons, loss, and “double vision”. Rivers which did not seem to know how to be rivers, but were “degenerated”, flowed to “a dead end” and were “defective”. “The words look for what is not there”, Arthur contended, “for the other country that did not happen” [18-24]. There was disappointment there, alienation, and longing, and this made these stories political: in their telling the new nation was delineated as less-than, as faulty, as something that only had an identity in relation to somewhere else.
Although many things have changed in Australia, much has stayed the same, as the saying goes. Every year around 150,000 migrants settle in this country, and all of them have stories to tell. Like the stories of the first migrants, these stories cannot help but be comparative. But there is more resistance than ever to them. Because Australia has such a fragile national identity, stories by newcomers are more often than not seen as criticism, and even as biting the hand that feeds. This is why Anne-Marie Smith’s anthology Culture Is… Australian Stories Across Cultures is such an important, and potentially hazardous enterprise. Although on the surface this seems like an innocent collection of stories by new (and some old) Australians, in the telling they are, as Homi Bhabha insisted, “narrating the nation” [v]. In his introduction, John von Doussa QC, the President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in Australia, acknowledges this. The aim of the anthology, he writes, is to “foster cross-cultural respect and encourage a sense of belonging among all Australian citizens” [ix]. To an outsider, this sounds harmless enough, but Von Doussa rightfully connects the collection to the multicultural society it describes, and asserts that “the exchange of stories” and “the discovery of common desires and values” this can engender, is “an ongoing challenge” that will hopefully steer us away from “the trap of ‘us and them’ ” [x-xi]. The reason for the book, he concludes, is to “break down stereotypes and prejudices” and to foster listening and understanding [xii].
What is most revealing in this compilation of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and even a screenplay, is how vehement the resistance against stories (and criticism) by outsiders still is in Australia. This is evident in a poem by Iranian-Australian writer Ali Alizadeh, who writes, in ‘Citizenship Test’:
the trivia about our gold medallists,
obscure heroes, etc, and a thing or two
(but certainly no more) about the Aborigines – but don’t let us
find you sympathising with them
and doubting our genocidal right
to make their land ours; or else
you’ll be rejected from our society
and ejected back to your filthy birth-
place. This is a nation of hygiene
where history has been sanitised and our guilt
disposed of in sewerages of amnesia [30-31].
Alizadeh’s anger seems directed not only at the Australian nation and its reluctance to be questioned, but also at the fact that he feels treated as a second-class citizen: any criticism and you risk being expelled. It is a tenuous situation these migrants find themselves in, walking a tight-rope of belonging and non-belonging, inclusion and exclusion. It is one of the themes constantly recurring in this anthology, together with issues like homesickness, memory, identity, confusion, loss, and, of course, language. Interestingly enough, Anne-Marie Smith has elected to include stories by all groups of migrants, not just the ones that are different enough (in colour and language) to be viewed as such by the average Australian. This means that even the tales of British and American migrants are heard, and that the conclusion can be drawn that the act of migrancy brings problems for every migrant, whatever their heritage and presumed ease of inclusion. Mary Pomfret, for instance, came from Britain in the early 1950s, but she vividly remembers one of her first outings to the beach in Melbourne. “Fresh from the boat”, the family is dressed for a British winter, the little girl wearing her “party dress of yellow voile with white flocked stars, and a little bolero hand-knitted in angora wool” . Although they try to fit in, they never really manage, and Pomfret ends her story by stressing that “it takes several generations at least for the jelly to set into some kind of mould to provide apedigree for the future” .
This process, of struggling to become something,someone else and not really succeeding, is a common thread throughout the book. Philip Tang describes how he, as the first generation to speak fluent English in his Vietnamese-Australian family, is resistant to be the constant interpreter, in language and emotions. There is the “I-don’t-understand-and-I-don’t-care, English-Vietnamese game”  that he plays with his mother, the boy using the new language to exclude his mother from his world. It is rooted in a desperate need to be ‘normal’, to not belong to the family that cling to the old country. Even if, as the boy suspects, Vietnam is “better in memory, better in letters and pictures and movies”  than in real life. Masha Anderson, an Iranian-Australian, echoes this internal battle by starting her story at the core of her mixed identity, her name. A name that always gets the same response: “’Sorry? Who? Could you spell that name please?’”. It makes her wonder whether she will ever “belong to this thing we call Australian culture”, and “wish I had a proper Aussie name” that does not evoke the constant question “where are you from?”  Especially because after more than twenty years in Australia, this query has become almost impossible to answer. She also does not want to have to choose between her two sides, feeling that in doing so her own personality is squashed. “We are a culture of mixedness” , she concludes, and that should be enough to belong in this diverse country.
Culture is… brings together a group of people who do not only describe their experiences and dilemmas as migrants. In doing so, they are writing themselves a home, a place to belong to, regardless of its perils and antagonisms. The question, of course, is: who is listening? And will Australia adapt its own national story accordingly?
Arthur, Jay. The Default Country : A Lexical Cartography of Twentieth Century Australia. Sydney : UNSW Press, 2003.
Bhabha, Homi. Nation and Narration. London & New York : Routledge, 1990.
Cercles © 2010